Slave Pianos, The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader, Review

Mitch Spee. “The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea: Part II_.” Frieze, 145, March 2012. [Review essay]

Charles H. Scott Gallery, Vancouver, Canada

’The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea: Part II’, is the second in a three-year trilogy of exhibitions curated by Cate Rimmer, which focuses on the relationship between humans and the sea. In both shows to date, this procedure was broadened through the inclusion of a selection of artefacts borrowed from Vancouver’s Maritime Museum and from private collections. While the proximity of the gallery to the ocean lent the exhibition a certain resonance, its antiquated lighthouses and sailing ships stretched that intimacy out to give a broader historical perspective.

The first work viewers encountered was one in a series of drawings by Los Angeles-based artist Karl Haendel, depicting Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914 mission to the South Pole, which ended in 1917 when his ship was crushed between two ice floes. Here, several of these drawings were installed – high, low and upside-down – in the Charles H. Scott Gallery’s deepest and tallest room, which had been painted grey. A familiar strategy of Haendel’s, this style of installation diffused the emphasis put on singular images by implicating them in a broader experience.

Shackleton was also the subject of Nina Katchadourian’s video Endurance (2002), wherein an image of his sinking ship was projected onto the artist’s tooth. For ten minutes the ship descends, as Katchadourian holds a clenched smile. Also on display was Bas Jan Ader’s Bulletin 89/Bas Jan Ader In Search of the Miraculous (1975), an unfolded broadsheet featuring a spread depicting the young artist sailing away from the camera and, on the other side, the score to the 19th-century sea shanty ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’. Originally distributed by Art and Project – an Amsterdam gallery active between 1968 and 1989 – as part of a project for which artists produced information bulletins to be sent through the mail, the work wove the image of the artist beginning his fateful voyage across the Atlantic into the reality of the mobile conceptual document.

Slave Pianos’ The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader (2001) comprised a radio play, a musical score and a collection of documents drawn from an interview with Ader’s widow and the ramblings of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst. This breathed new life into Ader’s historicized romantic conceptualism, and Crowhurst’s lesser-known story. Having died after abandoning his course and reporting false positions while competing in a one-man, round-the-world yacht race in 1969, Crowhurst was fitting company for the Dutch artist’s melancholic spectre. Viewers were invited to listen to the radio play, broadcast from a shortwave signal, the script of which was mounted on the adjacent wall. But, because it was difficult to coordinate one’s position in the convoluted story with the script, and because the play was read in English as well as Dutch, the experience oscillated between cohesion and dislocation.

Inevitably, the inflections that accompanied the anthropological artefacts included in the exhibition – a chunk of driftwood bearing the last words of a doomed sailor, newspaper clippings recalling the details of disastrous journeys – rubbed off on the art works. In positioning film, journalism, anthropology and art-making in relation to one another, Rimmer gave her audience cause to observe the susceptibility of each discipline to the influence of the others. Delivering a constant pattern of illumination and disappearance, the lighthouse featured in the first chapter of the series – in the work of Rodney Graham and Tacita Dean – served as an apt metaphor for the general operation of these exhibitions. Artefacts and art works alike appeared only momentarily as discrete objects before dissolving into a kind of darkness represented by a sea of competing histories, and meanings.

Mitch Spee

Slave Pianos, The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader, Review

Rachel Kent. “Pun to paradox: Bas Jan Ader revisited”. Parkett, 75:177–181, 2006. [Review essay].

Crowhurst and Ader together form the subject of Danius Kesminas and Michael Stevenson’s chamber opera, The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader (2001). Performed in Germany in October 2001, under the artists’ collaborative rubric, Slave Pianos, the work blends the satirical humor for which both artists are known with a deeply integrated understanding and exploration of musical structure, which, mirroring the lives of its protagonists, “tapers into a diatonic oblivion.” 1 Drawing on extracts from interviews, diaries, and other printed materials, the voices of Crowhurst, Ader, Ader’s widow, and her interviewers are interwoven to create a layered piece about their search for enlightenment, with its inherent frustrations. Ader’s voyage into oblivion

  1. Quoted from program notes produced by the artists to accompany the opera and its performance in Aachen and Düsseldorf, October 2001. The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader formed the second of a twopart chamber opera. The other component, The Broccoli Maestro (after writings by Tony Clark), cast an Australian slant on the notion of “failure.”